Ahead of the new Northern Broadsides production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at the Dukes, SCAN caught up with the Director, Conrad Nelson.
What inspired you direct ‘Much Ado About Nothing’?
When I first joined Broadsides to do Richard the Third, and the one play that stopped me initially joining was the film of Much Ado, and this is also my final show at Broadsides, so there is this lovely circularity to start and stop at the same place. Eighteen years ago we also do it when I was playing Benedick, and my wife was playing Beatrice. It’s a joyous piece, and I wanted to go out on something upbeat and romantic.
What was it like when you played Benedick and then to come back to it now?
It was great! I’ve been fortunate enough to play a lot of roles in Shakespeare, often baddies, Iago, Richard the Third, but I’ve also done Henry the Fifth. Benedik is just a lovely combination, he’s got the hubris, he’s a bloke, so full of himself, opinionated, but then he’s generous and comedic as a part as well. It’s one of those parts that demands you to play every character, so you have to play all the great hubris and the high comedy, but then you’ve got to come down to play the seriousness and the soldierly. It’s up my street is Benedik. What’s interesting for me is watching another actor come to terms with it.
Do you think it’s important to keep revisiting Shakespeare?
There is something about the core material. You could do the story of Hamlet, you could do it in mime or various other styles like that, but for me, that’s not Shakespeare. For me the thing that makes Shakespeare, Shakespeare is the text. Otherwise, it’s just a story; it’s not the same is it?
I’m not so bothered about context; we set the play in 1945 with soldiers returning from the war; that’s the premise. But in the end you’ve still got the words he put down, you could make it anything in terms of context, but you’ve still got the core text.
Plays have different relevance to you at different points in your life as well, when I did Hamlet a few years ago, as a man in his late forties, all the themes of life and death are different to when I’m fifteen. When I’m fifteen, I’m thinking I’m not getting up until twelve, and you’re never going to die when you’re fifteen. With love as well, you view love differently, when you’re older you realise what it was or what it could be. As an audience, you can return again and again to a play, and it will have different relevance to you depending on where you are in your life.
Why did you choose World War Two as a cultural setting?
The designer and I felt that we had seen a lot of World War One, and there is something melancholy about World War One. Also, my dad was a child in Liverpool during the Second World War; he was born in 1935, then he joined the RAF in the fifties.
When I think of the forties, I know war and bombing is going on, there is Hitler and the Third Reich, the persecution of Jews and all the other terrible things going on. But in there I also see The Andrew Sisters, Bing Crosby that sort of Vera Lynn-slight romance and I see my dad in his RAF uniform; there is something about the blue uniform that makes me think the RAF is a cut above the rest of the military ranks.
I love the look and the nostalgia, I love the look of the Land Girls, there was this lovely image I saw of all the land girls working in the fields, and as the planes were going overhead, they were all looking up. So it was also an aesthetic thing as well as the culture, we’ve got a lot of music in this show so we’ve got big band numbers and like I say The Andrew Sisters as well, the whole show kicks off with ‘Don’t Sit Under the Appletree’.
Do you have a favourite line or favourite part of the play?
I’m not great with remembering specific lines. But in terms on Shakespeare, I love the construction of the plays, specifically the prose which Much Ado features and the modernity and the prose’s dexterity is brilliant. It’s surprising how modern, and how the rhythms of the writing can give you a clear path on how to deliver this.
Have there been any challenges in bringing the play to life?
Not really, we try and choose companies who are going to work well together; a good ensemble is essential because we are spending five months together. The discoveries we have in rehearsal is that sometimes you need it not to be an ensemble, you need to take your moment in the sun. The ego nature of driving on drama is not about ‘look at me’ it’s about going, ‘what is the purpose of the character at this point?’; What is Benedick doing at this point? What is Beatrice doing?
It’s a joy; it’s never a problem. If there are difficulties, we find a way around it. When you rehearse things sometimes they may not turn out the way you perceive them, but that’s okay, you have to relax with that and consider the positive.
If there was any on the fence about Shakespeare in general or Much Ado, how would you sell this to them?
Just come! Just come and have a look, come with someone and discuss it. Just give it a chance, give everything a chance, give yourself a chance to be surprised, to be delighted. Even if you come out going “I was right all along, and I hated it.”
You won’t get a better welcome to a company. Much Ado is a great start, it’s gentle, it’s romantic, it’s got a slight dark hearted twist, you get a good night out, and you get the music as well, you get all these things that help with the communication with the narrative
Come and see everything and make Much Ado part of your everything.
Northern Broadsides is showing ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at the Dukes from the 5th to the 9th March. Tickets are available at their website: dukes-lancaster.org